Monday, September 27, 2004

Streaking Positive

Damn, I just have to brag a little. Something is working.

Since having my 11th-SNG-Don't epiphany, I've played in 7 $10+1 SNGs, and have been ITM all 7 times: 3 firsts, 1 second, and 3 thirds for a cool +$163 in profit.

My overal ITM% (based on 168 SNGs) is climbing slowly above the 33% plateau which I had been stuck on, and perhaps more importantly my ROI is moving quickly into the range where I can financially justify my time.

Most important however, is that I am playing well... truly achieving a mental state where even short stacked I feel confident I can pull through and make the money. On one of my recent third place finishes, another player even complimented my short stack play after busting me out as a dog. I had battled to make the money, even folding down a hand that left me crippled, in a situation where a lot of people would say "I'm pot committed now." I'd argue that in a NL tourney, you're never truly pot committed... there is no such thing. Putting that logic into practice when a fold will leave you with a BB and change, however, takes some discipline.

Streaking positive in itself has also sharpened my play: I'm making sure to give myself every possible chance to make the money, continue the streak, grow my bankroll, and prove that it's not just luck that is putting me here. (ITM 3 in-a-row = easily just luck, ITM 13 in-a-row = probably doing something right + some luck)

Included in all this is an area of my game that has probably seen dramatic improvement, even though I haven't really been specifically focusing on it: 3-handed and heads-up play. It's easy to just think of ITM play as being a crap shoot and gamble it up... you're already assured some profit. I've been very guilty of this in the past. One factor of ITM play that makes sense to think about is the level of the blinds: if it's only level 5 and you have a comfortable stack, slow down and play smart. Make reasonable raises, fold garbage, and almost never call. Watch your opponents, take your time, and try and see some flops. Agression is needed, yes, but there's no reason to turn things into an all-in pre-flop fest. 3-handed and heads-up play is so situational. This is why you'll often hear people say things like "the cards don't even matter". That's an overstatement of course, expecially online where reads and tells are limited to the size of someone's bets and the speed in which they act, but there is still an element of truth to it.

I'm also feeling very positive about Party/Empire, and the kinds of players out there playing right now. Within the first 2 levels of a SNG I can usually identify most of my opponents into two basic categories: "suckers" and "have-a-clues". And like Amarillo Slim famously said (paraphrasing here), "If you don't see a sucker at the table, you're it." So it's always good to notice a few suckers. More on suckers vs have-a-clues in a future post.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

The 11th SNG Don't

I'm fairly proud of my earlier post titled 10 SNG Don'ts, and I have a feeling that if I can continue my measured success, I'd like to put together some kind of free pdf/txt booklet on SNG strategy eventually. In order for me to feel confident about leading others down a path however, I'd like to actually have gone down that path myself... and that's what I'm trying to do: become a long-term winning online SNG player.

The 10 "don'ts" I've linked to above are pretty basic, but I'd like to think there's some good advice there. I've been working hard to avoid those things, and diagnose the obvious leaks in my game that must be present: I've found it difficult to climb above 33% ITM, and long-term, my ROI is hovering near 0%. Other's are claiming upwards of 50% ITM and respectable ROI's, so what's wrong with my play?

The answer to that question has been difficult to ascertain, but it's possible I've found one key, and short-term results suggest that, for me, it is indeed key. So here's the 11th SNG Don't:

11. Don't play too much.

You would think that the best way to become a winning player is to play, play, and then play some more, and this is fundamentally correct; nothing is a better teacher than experience. But there can be costs to playing too much... perhaps you're not allowing ample time to think about how you're playing, and perhaps results and beats in one game can steer a whole session off course (amplifying your initial loss). And even if things are going well, you can just plain get burnt out and bored, and anytime your mental state is less than optimal, you're probably playing less than optimal poker.

I had been playing a lot: sometimes upwards of 6 SNG's per day, and at least 2-3 nearly every day, with the above results. Starting to feel burnt out with just breaking even and struggling to improve my play, I decided to scale back a little. 1 SNG a day, or maybe 2 if I felt up to it... and so far, the results have been as good as I had hoped for: in the past 3 days in 4 SNG's I've logged 4 ITM finishes (two 1sts, and two 3rds). I'm sure some of this success is indeed luck, but overall I feel more into the game... more focused, and appear to be choosing my battles much more effectively.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Umm, No, You Had 2 Pair

After grinding it out at the SNGs yesterday, and taking a couple of disappointing finishes, I decided to try out a NLHE 6-player-max $25 table. I've said it before, but I really need to watch this kind of behaviour where I see a few disappointing finishes and then think "oh I'll go try something new now for a change." A change was probably called for, but it should have been "go take a walk" or even "go play some PS2", not something which could have exposed me to more loss.

But I'm also a smart guy, who figured that out pretty fast and had a firm grip on my emotions. I'd sit for a little bit, gauge how the table was, play a few pots and see what happened. I ended up there for over 2 hours. There were at least 6 memorable hands that I won, including when I took down over $50, when my pocket Kings held up against two all-ins. Another time, a guy who had been chatty and friendly the whole time I was playing took a beat and went on explosive tilt, going all-in 4 hands in a row, 3 of which were suprisingly folded to him, and the last of which I called with AKs, flopped a broadway straight, and made a flush on the river.

But the most memorable hand was probably the one below... be sure to read the chat that followed the hand. (And yeah, I know my play is somewhat debateable here... it felt right at the time to semi-bluff with the flush draw, that's all I can say.)
***** Hand History for Game 974430238 *****
$25 NL Hold'em - Wednesday, September 22, 01:50:21 EDT 2004
Table Table 14078 (6 max) (Real Money)
Seat 3 is the button
Total number of players : 5
Seat 6: ME ( $60.8 )
Seat 5: iluvpickles ( $27.02 )
Seat 8: farhaman ( $31.8 )
Seat 10: looseplayer2 ( $35.85 )
Seat 1: otc126 ( $26.6 )
ME posts small blind [$0.25].
farhaman posts big blind [$0.5].
** Dealing down cards **
Dealt to ME [ Ac 2c ]
looseplayer2 folds.
otc126 raises [$1.5].
iluvpickles folds.
ME calls [$1.25].

I'm not sure this was a good call really, but against this guy who I have been watching and suspect is really a chump, my implied odds are good. If he's holding AK or a good pocket pair, and I hit my nut flush, I know he'll pay me off.

farhaman calls [$1].
** Dealing Flop ** [ 3c, 5s, 8c ]
ME bets [$2].

With 4 clubs now, and an inside straight draw, I fire out a significant bet thinking I might take the pot right here, and if not, I'll have plenty of options on the turn. Out of position here, I'd rather be the agressor.

farhaman folds.


otc126 calls [$2].


** Dealing Turn ** [ 6s ]

I don't think my lone opponent is cagey enough to be pre-flop raising with any of the cards that would make him a straight, or trips, and with the obvious straight possibilities which he has to see, I figure I'll see how he really feels about his hand:

ME bets [$5].
otc126 calls [$5].

Again, hmmm. At this point I'm thinking he might have trips or an overpair. Then the magic happens:

** Dealing River ** [ 5c ]
ME bets [$10].
otc126 calls [$10].
ME shows [ Ac, 2c ] a flush, ace high.
otc126 doesn't show [ Td, Ts ] two pairs, tens and fives.
ME wins $36.60 from the main pot with a flush, ace high.

So he had an overpair, which he couldn't get away from even with a possible straight and a possible flush on the board.

otc126: damnit, i knew it
otc126: that was stupid
ME: you should have figured me for at least a straight
otc126: i couldnt put you on a straight
otc126: you called the raise

Okay, he's not totally stupid. He's using the same logic that I was to rule out the straight possibility, but when that third club fell and I bet out and he called?

otc126: i had a set
ME: umm, no, you had 2 pair
iluvpickles: haha
otc126: no i didnt
ME: check the hand history sucker?
iluvpickles: u know we can see what u had dont you?
looseplayer2: otc, you would have had a full house if you flopped a set
iluvpickles: lol
ME: haha
iluvpickles: nice lie

He eventually took some of that money back from me with some big hands, but he was over-respecting my bets and raises, and I just kept on raising him. I ended the session at about +$30... dissappointing considering how far ahead I was at one point. If all the NL games are as easy to crack as this, perhaps I'll have to play some more. I think the key is the no-limit... you can loose everything you have at the table in one click, and mistakes can be so much more costly. As long as you're not the one making them though, there seems to be some good opportunity for profit.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Yet Another SNG Strategy Post

As you may know, I've been focusing my attention primarily on the $10 Party/Empire Sit-And-Go's... it's the only level my means or bankroll can really support at this time, and I've all but given up on the limit tables due to the high variance I've encountered at the limits I can afford. Perhaps someday I'll return to that particular piece of cyber felt, but for now I'm working on my single-table tournament game for two reasons: I'm confident I can win long term at it, and it's bound to make an enormous difference in the 1-2 table live home tournaments I'm most likely to find myself in. When you've played a couple hundred SNG's online, and you can make obvious adjustments between online and live play, you're bound to tear apart the WPT-watching fish on the home game circuit. (more on me vs live action coming soon)

The good news is, I've been playing on the same money/roll for weeks now, and overall am in the positive territory. The bad news perhaps is that I was way farther ahead at one point than I currently am. Thankfully, I'm working hard at being a "performance oriented" player, so the results part of things really isn't my focus. Sure, I'm setting a "result oriented" goal for myself (see the sidebar), because in the long run, results do provide a metric for performance. The important distinction is, you just can't use short term results as a barometer for how you are performing. (Sure you hit your two-outer on the river and won a pile of chips, which is a good result, but was it good performance... long term?) You probably get my point.

So in my quest to improve performance, I've been printing out just about every piece of SNG advice I can google up, and trying to pull it all together into a winning strategy. It really isn't as simple as, "okay, this advice sounds good, I'll stick to this and I'll win", which in some minor ways, I have to admit was my thinking. Don't get me wrong, there is some good advice out there, but I'm beginning to see that some of it might do more harm than good.

Some of it might not fit your personal style. Some of it might use superlative terms like "always" and "never" in places where "often" or "hardly ever" would be more appropriate. Some of it is only relevant to big buy-in SNG's, and some just plain sucks.

To get to the point of this post, there are two factors which I'd like to discuss, which are relevant to my SNG progress.

Table Selection

Yep, you heard me right, table selection. It would seem that you have no clue what kinds of players you're going to end up against in a SNG, or what the texture of the table is going to be like, until you're actually sitting at the table watching some hands. For the most part, this is obviously correct, but I'm beginning to notice a trend... a weak one so far, but a trend none-the-less, in how well I do at certain times of the day, on certain days of the week, and a few other factors.

I guess my somewhat weakly formed theory is this: there are times when the type of opponents you're likely to encounter will be more favorable than others. Generally, playing on the weekend, in the evening, or right after a WPT or WSOP episode on TV ends, I have found myself more often at those loose-passive tables that I can do well at. I love being able to get paid off by some level one, all-in idiot who bluffs into my flopped full house, don't you? The other side of this theory, is that on a Monday morning at 11 AM, who's likely to be playing online poker? Probably more often than not, you're going to find yourself up against a table dominated by people who have a clue what they are doing.

Obviously this varies, and you can find yourself at a "good" or "bad" table anytime, but there almost certainly has to be a trend that you could use to your advantage. I'd love to hear any thoughts on this... have you seen/observed the same thing as I have? Any particular times to avoid? Times to definitely want to play? (Of course, being able to adjust play for different table textures holds much more value than this form of "table selection".)

Starting Hand Selection in Levels 1-3

Now this is a big deal. It has probably been the biggest overall struggle I've faced in nailing down a solid SNG strategy, partly because I've read a lot of conflicting advice.

I really, really like a bit of tournament theory I read somewhere: "Start out like the rock of Gibraltar, and end like a kamikaze." That is, to put in more words, you should start a tourney very tight and or solid, taking few risks, and make gradual adjustments as things progress, until the end when you should be loose and taking many risks. Sounds good, no? There's plenty of advice out there that agrees with this concept, but interpreting this overall strategy into hand-to-hand decisions is where things get tricky. And nothing is perhaps as tricky as pre-flop play in online SNGs... what hands to play, and what hands to sit out.

Perhaps in a tournament structure where blinds increase at a moderate rate, it's probably a good strategy to sit back, watch, and wait for giant pre-flop hands to play in the early going... but I'm talking about Party/Empire SNG's here, where quickly increasing blinds make the time from start to finish, 10 players to 1, often under 45 minutes. The rules are different.

I've read SNG advice that proposed only playing AA-JJ and AKs in the first two rounds... and I've read SNG advice that said to limp with almost anything playable... suited connectors... suited one-gaps and two-gaps... Axs, Kxs, Qxs. It's difficult to say whether the former, latter, or a combination of the two is best, but I'm starting to get an idea of what works and what doesn't, and what hands to play early on.

Especially with the many poor players out there, limping with anything that can flop a monster in the early rounds is probably a good idea. I think the key is to watch your position, and make the distinction between what to play when someone has raised, and when it's been just called or folded around to you. Raised pots pre-flop in early levels (1-3) pretty much demand AA-JJ or AK for you to make a safe call. Someone raising pre-flop with AA looks a lot like an idiot raising with Q6s in the early rounds. Figure out who the fish are before attempting to reel them in.

It's mostly about implied odds in the early going. If you flop trips or better with no scare cards, or a ton of outs to the nuts (like an open-ended straight flush draw), you're likely to get paid off by the suckers holding a pair or chasing something stupid like an inside straight. I'm beginning to think that the cost of limping often in rounds 1-2, and sometimes 3, is far outweighed by the pot you'll take down if you can hit a hand or two.

The key really is knowing when to let your pre-flop limp become a post-flop fold, especially when you've caught a piece of it. You've got to read the board perfectly, know what you could be up against, and act accordingly. Flop play is where SNGs are won and lost.

The reason I'm putting so much emphasis on levels 1-3, is that there's generally a lot of chips up for grabs at this point, and if you're just sitting there waiting on huge starting hands, you're going to more often than not watch someone else take all the dead money at the table. And then you're running the risk of being a short stack, against rapidly increasing blinds and the big stacks who did take all the dead money. I'd rather take a few limping gambles early on, possibly gaining enough chips to coast into the money. If I don't get lucky with all my early limps, but get away from them cleanly, I'll probably still be left with at least 500 chips by the time I need to start worrying and looking for a hand to go all-in pre-flop with.

So it appears as if "starting like the rock of Gibraltar" might not really apply to online SNGs, at least with respect to what hands to play. A better analogy perhaps would be to start like one of those people who buy things at flea markets and thrift stores and sell them on eBay for a living: buy it for cheap, but when you find out it's worth something, sell it for a lot.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Poker Equation

As you may have noticed, I've added links to a few other well-known poker weblogs in the sidebar... and as I find more that are worth reading I'll be adding to the list. One of those weblogs, titled The Cards Speak, is not only well worth checking a few times a week (the quotes at the start of each entry are just plain awesome), but recently featured a great post titled "The Play's The Thing" which you should read.

It's a "big picture" post, in which the author questions the nature of bad beats and streaks, and ends up describing what's going on when you play poker day after day, and more importantly presents a case for how you should think about playing poker day after day. The author references a post made to titled Sgt Rock's Poker Philosophy Part 1, which makes the following statements:

Result = Performance ± Luck

...Some of you who read this may scoff that everything said here is quite obvious... ...Even though *everyone* who is not blatantly stupid (this may even include a few of the players in your game) already knows these things, don't the vast majority of players behave in a manner quite oblivious to the logic or reason given above?

Sometimes to just a small degree, but more often to a large extent, MOST players I observe are more Results or Luck than Performance oriented.

...If you are "Performance Oriented," and focus your attention on your performance, then you've got the feline by the coccyx. Performance is the one thing that you CAN control. It's the one thing that CAN be rock steady, no flux, no variance, day after day. It's up too you. As you play on towards that dim, distant and barely visible light at the end of the tunnel (the long run) remember this: Performance can and should become Result, without regard for Luck.

...normal swings of good and bad Luck can destroy your bankroll if you react inappropriately to those fluctuations. Avoiding that- maintaining mental discipline and maybe exploiting luck but never being its victim- is part of Performance. If you perform well in this area, then the net effect of Luck IS zero. Then, the equation becomes simply:

Result = Performance

I'd like to think that as a poker player, I'm more performance oriented than I've ever been. But man, I have a lot to learn.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Running Bad

You can take the elation of my last post, and flip that about 180 degrees. I went from ~$250 from my year-end goal to ~$130 from it, and now back to about ~$250. Bleh. Variance aside, I'm still struggling to plug a few holes in my SNG game.

Most notably, 4th place finishes. I have more 4ths than any other finish: turn those 4ths into 3rds and I'd be at my goal already. There seems to be three basic scenarios that I run into when down to 4 players:

Scenario 1. I make it into the money either due to a large stack, solid play, and/or good cards.

Scenario 2. I have a stack that would basically let me coast into the money, but I end up committed in a pot, or bluff at the wrong pot, and either get busted out completely, or crippled so badly that I get blinded out a few hands later.

Scenario 3. I have a small/medium stack and wait for the short stack to bust out, only to watch him double up and end up short myself, or fearing the blinds and being pushed by the large stacks, I play back and end up either crippled or out completely.

The absolute worst and biggest leak is obviously Scenario 2 above. I don't want to waste the opportunity of being chip leader on the bubble (a powerful position to be in), but if I have enough chips to coast in the money, I should do just that. My ITM% could use some help for sure.

Scenario 3 is a lot tougher, and I end up in that position quite a bit. I played a solid game until down to 4, but didn't get the right cards in the right pots, and have a small/medium stack that is going to probably force me to have to play in order to make the money. It's possible that I should be sitting back a little more than I do in this position... you always want to allow other people ample opportunity to make mistakes before you risk making one yourself. But the cost of waiting and waiting and watching the blinds climb into the 200/400 range and higher can be great as well; when people notice that you are now the short stack, they're probably going to start waiting to see if you bust out.

As I said, it's tough, but also pretty depressing. 4th through 10th pays the same, but you only waste a few minutes of your life finishing 10th, whereas a 4th place finish might take you 45 minutes or more. String 3 of those together and say hello to tilt. This is definitely my biggest challenge and area I need to work on. Assuming this is getting read by anyone, I'd appreciate any links, thoughts, or ideas.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Multi-Table Fun (Jinx Be Damned)

Rolling along now. Whew.

I finally managed to get some time to register for the Empire Poker $500 Daily FreeRoll, and was looking forward to my first multi-table effort. It was fun, though short lived. I ended up finishing 191 out of 250 when I flopped a pair of Aces (with King kicker), and my only opponent check-called the flop and turn, and then busted me out on the river when he showed his pocket Aces to make a set. Fitting, perhaps. Boo.

Then, excited about the multi-table action, I found my way to the mulit-table SNG tab, and figured I'd give a 2-table $10+1 a try. I played solid, avoided big confrontations, and managed to still be alive at the 1-hour point, with 2240 in chips and 8 players total remaining. Then I entered a hand with Axs, to see a flop of AA6. I quickly called someone's all-in bet... he showed a 6... and I caught the unneccessary yet always welcome case Ace on the river to take me to over 4k in chips. Best Empire/Party hand yet.

Now, with 5 players left (this tourney paid to top 4), I'm beginning to feel a little nervous. I have plenty of chips to probably sit back and at least make 4th place ($20), but I seem to have bad luck on the bubble. Then, holding ATo, the short stack pushes all in and it gets folded around to me. Here we go... he doesn't have that many chips, and 99% of the people I know would tell me that I should call, but I fear the possible beat that could take me from ~3800 chips down to ~3000, and double up the short-stack putting me at a much greater risk of not placing in the money. I call. He shows a glorious 53o, and I win like ATo is supposed to in that situation, putting me in the money and ~4600 in chips.

I end up busting the 4th place finisher, steal a bunch of blinds, and rack up the chip lead with 9000+ chips (about double what the others have). Down to 2 players, with about even stacks and increasing blinds, I get suckered into calling what I think is a "post-oak bluff" on a flop that gave me an open-ended straight draw... the turn is no help and I call another small bet... the river is no help, and my opponent goes all in. I can't call, and quickly realize that heads-up I should have raised his flop bet or folded. Now I'm facing a call in which I am easily beat for all my chips, or a fold which will leave me crippled.

I opt for crippled and alive, and fold it down. I'm not sure of the particulars, but I ended up waiting a few hands and pushing all in with a decent heads-up hand in the necessary effort to double up, but it was not to be. 2nd place, a $60 prize, $49 profit, and look at that goal get closer. Nice.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Setting A Goal

As I've said before, I'm prepared to lose at least a few hundered dollars in an effort to become a better player, and get to that point where you begin to win more than you lose. After another SNG 1st, several recent low limit sessions that ended in the black, and a slowly growing bankroll, I'm really starting to want to say that I am at that point, even though I fear the jinx.

To that end, I thought it would be beneficial to set a goal for myself... a target to work towards. After a little research, I've come up with where I stand so far this year: a dissapointing -$246.00. (I dropped a good bit at low limit earlier this summer.) So my goal, which I think is quite reasonable, is simply to earn enough to finish the year in the black.

And so, you may notice in the right-hand column I have added a stats section to keep track of my progress, and a few other things that might be worth noting.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Switching Things Up

I've been hammering away at the Party/Empire $10 single-table SNGs lately: averaging at least 4-5 a day in an effort to prove that I can crack these things in the long run. Yesterday I had one of those moments where everything that I've been soaking up... the thousands of hands, the books, the articles... finally seemed to be paying off. Things were clicking. I was winning nice pots when I was the favorite, and losing minimally when I got outdrawn. In 4 tourneys, I took 2 3rd place finishes, a bad beat for 4th, and rounded out the set with a 1st.

The 1st place finish was the most satisfying game I've seen yet. I came into the money with the shortest stack, and then, like magic, my opponents revealed that I was the best player of the 3. They were folding the blinds to me right and left. I stole thier blinds when I was on the button something like 4 times in a row at one point. If they did choose to play, it was call or minimum bet every time with a big ace, and a raise with AK or a pair. One player even made the comment "damn, cold cards", after folding about 8 hands in a row. I just ground the tightness right out of them. Beautiful.

But then just like that things dried up for me. Today I was playing just about as good as I ever have, and only managed a dissapointing couple of 3rds out of about 10 tournaments, giving back all of the previous night's winnings. Just when I feel I start to build the roll, this kind of thing happens. So I went back to my old enemy: the low-limit ring games.

I did need a change of pace perhaps, but I quickly realized that it was somewhat of a tilt that was responsible for me being here again, and reigned those emotions in right away. Play solid. Limp with all the hands that can flop monsters. Play your position. I half expected to drop a quick $20 and split, but instead ended up a satisfying $30+ after a little over an hour. And that would be more like $50 without 2 big pots that I ended up splitting with identical straights. I did get hit with the deck a few times (like flopping top 2 pair with a Q5o in the BB), but I also felt confident; like I was in control, and could really only win because I was minimizing loss so well.

Two key points:
  1. It might be a nice change to switch games or limits when you end up burnt-out or frustrated with what you've been playing... just watch the tilt factor.
  2. Improved play in one game can and will translate into improved play in another game. (Assuming you can make the necessary adjustments between limits/games/etc.)

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Norman Chad And Poker One-Liners

Norman Chad, one of this year's WSOP commentators on ESPN, appears to be a "love him or hate him" kind of guy. I think a lot of people are confusing the televised WSOP with something "educational" or a real sporting event, where they actually show the whole contest and viewers expect some insightful and analytical commentary. The WSOP on TV is pretty much entertainment, and entertainment only... you're only seeing the choice hands where players make big moves or bad moves... not the 5000 folded hands in-between. So, with that in mind, I expect to be entertained, and half of that for me is Norman Chad's array of one-liners, even the 200 he uses that are about his ex-wife.

Tonight's big one for me was when someone flopped some overcards holding JJ, his opponent bet big, and the player holding JJ yelled in disgust, "Oh, F*#k!" Then Chad responds with a sarcastic tone, "...Is that a tell?"

Another one I liked a few weeks back was when someone folded a medium pocket pair to a smallish bet where most people would have gladly called or re-raised. Chad responded, "I bet this guy still has the first dollar he ever made too" in disgust at the person's tight play.

Perhaps best of all are the times where Chad is unrelenting in his heckling of the heckle-deserving Phil Helmuth. It's entertainment, and I mostly enjoy Chad's one-liners, if for no other reason that he gives me some new material to use at the neighborhood game.